Little Britain, a sketch show just promoted to BBC2 (Mondays, 10pm) from BBC3, is done up to resemble one of those old Central Office of Information or British Council films advertising the British way of life to Johnny Foreigner. (To dissuade asylum-seekers these days, presumably, the Foreign Office makes documentaries about how lousy everything is here.) The funny - or, in this case, not particularly funny - thing is that, whether it knows it or not, Little Britain actually is an advert for British values. It presents a Britain peopled by kind and tolerant folk who smile upon the harmless eccentrics in their midst. You never feel it has made a joke in anger.
The show's origins - like so much else in UK television comedy, from Alan Partridge to Dead Ringers - lie in a late-night series on Radio 4, where they prefer their comedy gentle. Thence it went to BBC3, was pumped with filmic production values and managed to make a little breakthrough beyond the confines of that channel's usually min- uscule audience. For a little while now, "I'm the only gayer in the village" has been gaining currency as a popular catchphrase.
Daffyd, the solitary gay Welshman who says it each week, is not the funniest of Matt Lucas and David Walliams's creations, but he is representative of the spirit of the whole. Naturally, he is not the only homosexual in his village. There are loads around, from his fellow Lycra-clad drinker in the pub to the pectorally perfect blacksmith. But even if he were the only one, no one would tease him. Even the old lady behind the counter at the newsagent, who reserves him a copy of the Gay Times, is liberal enough to be able to recommend an informative article in it about rimming.
The joke is therefore on Daffyd, who just wants to feel special, rather than against society, much as the joke was always on the effeminate males in Monty Python, not the assumptions of the public school boys who made it. This does not mean that Little Britain is homophobic. It neither has the inclination nor the guts for that. What it is telling us is that Great Britain is so at ease with itself that it can now make jokes about gays and that gays, being so secure in their paradise, join in the laughter. And the programme certainly likes its gay jokes. Another character, Sebastian, is a Peter Mandelson-like special adviser to the prime minister (played by Buffy's Anthony Head) in love with the PM and jealous of any attention shown him by civil servants or his wife. "Ooh, you've got an eyelash. Make a wish," says Sebastian, staring into the premier's eyes.
The little Britain created by Lucas and Williams is full of good intentions. There is a soppy, long-haired social worker type who attends to a paraplegic friend, unaware that he is perfectly well and taking the piss on a heroic scale. The director of a mental hospital, to prove his institution makes no hierarchical distinctions between doctors and inmates, hires someone to play the loony for official visitors. David Soul turns up to a dying child's hospital bed only to find her parents have more interest in collecting his autograph than seeing their child recover. There are cynical people in the show, but the sketches side with the virtuous.
The programme's antecedents are The Dick Emery Show, Harry Enfield's various programmes, The Fast Show and The League of Gentlemen - comedy where familiarity of the characters is more important than punchlines. Marjorie Dawes, for instance, the patronising lecturer at Fat Fighters, is a clear rip-off of Eileen, the Jobcentre sadist in League. The unconvincing transvestite and her relationship with lusty men is familiar from League's transsexual cab driver. The most original character is an overweight, aggressive schoolgirl who answers any question "No but yeh", and then launches into an incoherent jabber about petty squabbles with her friends. Yet the authority figures she confronts are mildness itself when dealing with her. Told off by a lifeguard for pushing someone into the swimming pool, she agrees to get out but only after she has had a wee. The supervisor lets her.
What can be said for the sketches is that they are generously acted and that the dialogue is carefully constructed out of contemporary verbal tics. But no social comment comes with the observation, no buried attack, for instance, on the public school system when we turn to the Kelsey Grammar School and laugh at its tweedy, idiotic schoolmaster. A family of minstrels listens unconcerned to the Home Secretary warning on the radio that illegal minstrels are becoming a problem for Britain. They switch to a show tunes station.
It is the sort of thing that I would have found hilarious in the fifth form and naff by the upper sixth. In middle age, one smiles indulgently without bothering to seek it out again. As Tom Baker, the voice-over artist for the "documentary", sums up at the end of the second episode: "What have we learnt? We've learnt to tell a goblin from a hobgoblin." In other words: nothing. Little Britain is not satire but silliness. And silliness, it smugly asserts, is another great British tradition.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times